Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Brandon Peters retrospective review: Die Hard (1988).

It's time for another comprehensive franchise discussion from Brandon Peters, this time centering around the February 14th release of A Good Day to Die Hard.  As such, the first film on the list is, well, Die Hard.

Die Hard
Directed by: John McTiernan
Starring:  Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, , Reginald VelJohnson, Paul Gleason, William Atherton, Hart Bochner, Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush
Rated: R

No fucking shit lady, do I sound like I’m ordering a pizza?
                        ~John McClane

If you’re at least 25, a male and haven’t seen Die Hard… you've got to be kidding, right?  John McTiernan’s 1988 action thriller arguably changed an entire genre and still has its effect ever so present in today’s action world.  The film launched what will be a five-film franchise coming this Valentine’s day.  Do they all work?  Should it have stopped after one?  two?.  That’s what we’re here to discuss.

Coming off the hit film Predator, director John McTiernan was offered the big screen adaptation of the book Nothing Lasts Forever, a sequel to The Detective (which was made into a movie in 1968).  McTiernan found the material too dark and turned it down initially.  Once the script was lightened up, he accepted.  Due to a contractual obligation, the star of The Detective, an aged Frank Sinatra had to legally be offered to the role first before anything was to move forward.  As expected, he turned it down.  The script was then refurnished to feature a younger lead and also the character’s daughter became his wife.  Joe Leland then became John McClane as to not confuse this as a direct follow up to The Detective.  And hoping to reteam with his star from his previous film, McTiernan offered the lead to Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Once he turned it down, the bill of usual action movie suspects turned it down as well (Stallone, Mel Gibson, Burt Reynolds, Harrison Ford, even Richard Gere). 

Partially out of desperation to find a lead actor in time to start filming, McTiernan decided to take a different route in the end and cast TV star Bruce Willis with an unheard-of $5 million to play the role.  At first, Willis was unable to accept, due to his obligations to the hit series Moonlighting, but when co-star Cybill Shepherd got pregnant, the door opened for Willis.  And if you have the Moonlighting DVDs, Bruce thanks Cybill for getting knocked up so he could do Die Hard, which propelled him into a genuine super star. Ironically Willis and Shepherd reportedly hated each other.  Willis's star turn brought something new and different to the conventional action hero role: He was an every-man.  He was your dad, your uncle, a guy that worked at your local store.  His physique wasn't gargantuan, he made wise cracks, he bled, he got scared, he was emotional during a crisis.  We felt for this guy.  He doesn't act like a slick, “too cool” arrogant badass either.  Willis invented a whole new kind of badass in this film.  This gave the events at the Nakatomi tower a genuine plausibility.  John McClane wasn't a superhuman.  He didn't have shoes.  When he ran through the broken glass that shatters in ever single action movie, he got cut and pieces of glass got stuck in his feet.  Who didn't wince in pain with John as he picked the glass out (I still do to a degree to this day)?

Equally bringing an A game in his feature film debut is Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber.  Hans Gruber probably goes down as THE best action movie villain of all time.  Aside from the James Bond series, villains in action movies were usually thankless, flat, boring roles.  They were guys that just barked orders.  Hans Gruber was colorful, and had thought five steps ahead of every part of his plan and every contingency necessary.  He’s no fool and was as much a character as the hero he squared off against.  He gets thrust into playing a chess match with McClane and is still able to carry through with his plan, almost getting away with it.  Rickman absolutely shines in this role, which makes it odd that, save his equally potent villainous turn in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves two years later, Rickman more-or-less disappeared from American cinema for nearly a decade until his comeback in 1999 with Dogma and Galaxy Quest.  Come what may, Hans Gruber stands with Goldfinger, Darth Vader, The Joker, and Hannibal Lecter among the truly iconic screen villains in modern cinematic history.

Die Hard is wonderfully thought out and choreographed by McTiernan.  In a very smooth, non blatant way, within the first twenty minutes McTiernan is able to give you a comfortable feel for the layout of the Nakatomi building and the background and drive of all the major characters.  Its so swift, so natural, that you’re just swept up in it.  There’s cues to John and Holly’s possible divorce and where their relationship is without ever actually saying anything about it.  A character like Ellis may be the stereotypical 80's yuppy LA business coke nose scumbag, but Hart Bochner (a Terror Train alum) plays it was with such color and dedication that he becomes a three-dimensional person.  All the terrorists, while not overly shaded or developed, are easy to discern and remember throughout the film and after you've left the theater.  Maybe its because they all dress their own way and have their own visual style.  Some get some funny bits as well (the “front door stakeout-grabbing a candy bar” being a fave).  There’s plenty of crowd-pleasing action and occasionally brutal violence, yet the film doesn't revel in its (restrained by today's standards) carnage nor does it revel in the onscreen demises of its various bad guys.  

And since our hero is alone, instead of making us just watch a machine go to work, we are given a cop on the outside for John McClane to communicate with and dig deeper into who he is and what he wants.  This could have been a guy talking to himself or working in silence.  The John-Al relationship is key to getting us through the night, and ramps up the suspense just another tad, as we hope to see the two united for the first time at the end of everything. In a weird way, watching it this time, I had thoughts of Die Hard resembling the latter portion of Homer’s Odyssey.  John has been away for a long time, longing to see his wife.  But when arrives, the things have changed.  There’s suitors and obstacles with which he must surpass in order to call his castle home again.  And while there is a genuine would-be suitor (Ellis), most of the "suitors" are now terrorists taking hold of what John has been away defending. Also of note, this is the second film in my “Dissection” series to feature Robert Davi and Grand L. Bush.  The first was License to Kill.  Here they are together a year prior as FBI agents Johnson and Johnson. 

Die Hard is one of those films that I would say is damn near perfect.  It still works to this day.  There’s not a thing I would change about it.  And that’s saying a lot.  This film influenced the action genre tremendously in ways that still resonate today.  Everyone wanted to make the next Die Hard.  An entire sub-genre of action movies sprung up trying to put a regular Joe in a contained area fighting to get out.  Whether it was a chef on a battleship (Under Siege) or a disturbed former cop on a plane (Passenger 57), it was “Die Hard on a ship!” or “Die Hard on a plane!”  Everyone wanted in on the Die Hard formula.  Not until The Matrix came did the “Die Hard on a” taglines start to simmer down.  They didn't go away though, I’m sure you can still find them today.

Die Hard is one of my absolute favorite films.  Nobody is going to put this film in an AFI top blah blah of all time.  And that’s fine. I can pop this thing in at any time and run with it.  It was one of the first real ‘Hard R’ films I ever saw.  Most of my generation’s first R film was usually Robocop.  But this one felt like the first “adult” movie I shouldn't be watching.  Watching Die Hard made me feel like I was getting away with something.  The film's plausibility gives it its excitement while the sheer relatability of John McClane gives it its suspense.  I sympathized and loved the character of John McClane as he made me laugh (that line I used as the quote above got rewound so many times the first time I saw Die Hard).  I felt for him and rooted for him to take down the robbers, finish off Hans Gruber, reunite with Holly and meet Al for the first time.     

Next Time:  Die Hard 2: Die Harder

Dennis Franz’s mustache, Django, William Sadler’s butt and John McClane shoots blanks while Holly circles above

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corysims said...

Watched this last week and I completely agree. It was great to revisit this near perfect classic. Combined with McTiernan's Predator and First Blood, I think you make a strong case that you can't do, in terms of the action genre, than those three films.

He never quit while he was ahead but the inferior sequels (even the great sequel, With A Vengeance) can never stain the classic that is Die Hard.

Anonymous said...

Easily in my top ten of action movies.

Aaron Neuwirth said...

Actually, I believe Die Hard is in AFI's 100 Thrills List. Welcome to the party pal!

urkel said...

Let's hear it for Reginald VelJohnson as Al! (I just wanted to get the actor's name out there.)


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